The Self-consciousness flow of William James

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 6 Comments

To understand the thinking of William James I have tried to see the world as I believe he saw it – as one continuous unfolding flow. In my own contemplation of James I have followed a line of thought that mirrors in some ways hiw own development from a psychologist to a philosopher. James’ philosophic pet peeve was any notion of duality, which means any belief in the existance of any realm of being outside of, or separate from, the rest of reality. James believed that the universe had to be one continious unbroken event  and he was at war with metaphysical or transcendental dualisms that allowed for two seprate parts of reality to exist simultaniously. He shared this battle with the other founding Pragmatists, but he took it in a unique and fascinating direction starting with his psychological understanding of conscoiusness, developing through his conception of Pragmatsim and ending up in his own “theory of everything” that he called Radical Empiricism.

I have described previously James’ conception of “the stream of consciousness.” To James our experience of consciousness emerges as a continuous single stream and within that stream everything that we experience is included. This may sound simple and obvious, but it is more profound than it may apprear at first and has deep implicatons for the nature of reality.

To describe what I have come to understand from James I will start by examining how he thought about the experience of self-consciousness. Let’s assume that we are aware of an object. When we are aware of that object we are also aware of being aware of the object – we would say that we are self-consciously aware of the object. The same thing happens for actions. We are acting and we are simultaneously aware that we are acting. The way most of us relate to this without thinking is that we assume that there is the original awareness of the object, or the original action, AND at the same time there is a simultaneous awareness of being aware of the object or of the action. Essentially that creates a split in the sense of identity. There is a “me” that is aware of the object or a “me” who is acting, AND another “me” that is aware of the “me-being-aware-of-the-object” or the “actor.” So where does that second “me” exist. If you think about it you will probably realize that you don’t usually think about it, but you probably imagine that that awareness of yourself being aware is somehow hovering over the self that it is aware of – two “me’s” It is a transcendent self that exists outside of the process of the original awareness or the original action that watches these.

James wouldn’t accept this. There is only one reality he insisted, not two, and he had ethical reasons for insisting as much. He feared that the sense of a second “I” that was aware of the original one created a philosophical identity crisis. Who am I really? Is the question that arises. Am I the one who was aware of the object, or the one who was acting, OR was I the one who was aware of being aware of the object, or aware of acting? This split identity James saw as a moral slippery slope. Was I the one acting in the world or the one watching myself in the world? And if I was the one watching myself in the world was I the one acting? If I commit a crime, but I am identified with the self-awareness that was aware of the crime do I think of myself as innocent? Am I innocent?

This split left open the possibility that the “observing self” might be able to claim immunity from the results of the actions of the “acting” self. James considered himself to be a moral philosopher and he wanted to remove the wiggle room that would allow anyone to excuse their negative behavior in the world by appealing to the part of themselves that existed in a more transcendental realm.

James saw consciousness as a continuous stream. The experience of self awareness wasn’t a separate awareness that existed outside of the original stream; it was part of that awareness. If I see an object, part of my experience of the object is the sense of being aware of it. Self awareness in this way becomes not a separate vantage point from which to view myself viewing-the-object, but rather my self-awareness is part of my experience of the object. There is only one continuous stream of consciousness. At one moment I am aware only of the object, and then in the next moment I am aware of myself, and then in the next moment I am aware of myself being aware of the object, and in the next moment I am aware of the object again, etc, etc…

James’ philosophy of Radical Empiricism took this idea one step further and stated that the world itself is created only from successive moments of personal experience. Personal experience is the “stuff” that reality is made of. And reality, like consciousness, appears drop by drop in one continuous stream.  He didn’t believe that ideas existed outside of the world. The physical world and the mental world of thoughts and feelings were both made up of what he called “pure experience.”

James’ version of the philosophy of Pragmatism contained the same sense of a continuous flow that was reflected in his view of consciousness and of experience, but now it included action as well. He saw an idea and the action that resulted from belief in that idea, not as two different things, but as two ways of looking at the same thing. Maybe we could think of it as if the idea was the inside-out view and the action was the outside-in view of the same exact event. From this way of thinking our experience of reality is a continuous flow in which our mental experience is connected directly to our actions in the outside world. In a very Zen-like way James saw reality unfolding as thoughts led to actions, that led to consequences, that led to more thoughts, that lead to more actions, that lead to more consequences, and so on. To James believing in an idea meant acting on that idea, and acting on any particular idea would inevitably result in particular consequences in the world. Our ideas and the manifestations of those ideas in the world are not two separate things. You cannot believe in an idea without your actions demonstrating that belief in consequences in the world, and if there no consequences of an idea expressed in your actions then you don’t really believe in that idea. For James we all had “the will to believe,” we all had the freedom to choose which ideas we would believe in. And because whatever ideas we believed in would ultimately lead to actions and consequence, the one thing that we had to take absolute responsibility for was the ideas we choose to believe in.

James’ personal feelings about this were influenced by his misgivings about the human cost of the civil war. The war was ostensibly fought defending noble ideas, but for James the fact that noble ideas could be used to justify so much bloodshed was a deep philosophical failing in our understanding of reality. In fact if those noble ideas led to such bloodshed, you would have to question their nobility.

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13 years ago

What you describe about James is remarkably similar to how Skinner saw the world, except he would substitute the word “behavior” for “consciousness.” Skinner also did not think that belief or ideas necessarily cause overt behavior, but that covert behavior (thoughts and feelings) and overt behavior (external actions) might have different kinds of causal relationships with each other, or no causal relationships with one another, depending on the “if-then” contingencies (or lack thereof) between them.

13 years ago

Carl, I would love to learn more about which kind of relationships there is between the covert world and overt world according to Skinner. For me I like very much the james description. Somehow I feel true that I cannot believe in one thing and in it s contrary at the same time. It I feel so. then it just means I believe in none of those two things, or that none of them makes sense to me yet. When an idea start to make sense, when meaning deeply roots inside me, then the idea becomes “alive” exactly like James… Read more »

Jim Paradisi
Jim Paradisi
12 years ago

“you can not believe in an idea without your actions demonstrating that belief in consequences in the world” How self-implicating.Your actions demonstrate your belief system.It is not enough just to talk about them.

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
12 years ago

Hi Jim, That is exactly what I find most inspiring about James.

Thomas Foley
Thomas Foley
10 years ago

Would talking about your idea’s or writing your idea’s or communicating your idea’s be a form of action that shows a commitment to an idea? communication is action.
9 years ago

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